Monday, July 21, 2014

On Hopes and Dreams: A Sermon

 "Jacob's Ladder" by Marc Chagall; Image from www.marcchagallart.net.


Rev. Jenny Frazier Call
“Dream On”
A Sermon for Appomattox Court House Presbyterian Church
OT: Genesis 28:10-19a; NT: Romans 8:12-25
Sunday, July 20, 2014

Scripture readings:
Genesis 28:10-19a
Jacob’s Dream at Bethel
 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’
 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel

Romans 8:12-25
 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

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Good morning.  It’s a pleasure to be with you today.  As I’ve planned for this day, I’ve corresponded with Loren, who has shared so lovingly and thoughtfully about you as a congregation and it is obvious that she cares a great deal about this church.  We connected through Hollins University, her alma mater, where I am now chaplain.  When I was new to my role, she sought me out to welcome me, and in another act of gracious hospitality, invited me to share the message and worship with you during this Sunday of her maternity leave.    As she realizes the dream of motherhood alongside her calling as minister, we, too, will reflect upon our dreams today, both the sleeping and the waking varieties. 
I wish we could have a dialogue this morning.  If we could, I would ask you, “What is your most frequent or most vivid dream?”  I bet we could share some wondrous and fascinating images and entertain ourselves trying to determine what they might mean.  Unfortunately, I have a hard time remembering my nighttime dreams (at least the positive ones).  It’s as if the images vanish like little popping clouds (poof) as my eyelids open.  My young children have no such problem.  Each night before bed, they think about what they want to dream about and present it like a wish list to God in their prayers.  For my 8-year-old son, it’s usually a wish to dream about the world of Harry Potter.  My six-year-old daughter has visions of ice cream and unicorns and puppies.  I just silently hope that I don’t have one of those awful anxiety dreams about my teeth falling out or getting lost trying to find my way somewhere while I am running late.  I never outgrew those school-age dreams of missing an important class or forgetting to get dressed before going to school.   My daughter, though, relishes her dreams, and they are full of her creative imagination.  Many mornings she comes downstairs to snuggle in bed with me and asks, “Wanna know what I dreamed?”  And of course I do.  There’s nothing like the imaginative dreams of children.  Her slumber is full of light and color and story.  Her dreams are about connection as she shares of how we were rainbow fish swimming in the ocean together, or unicorns sharing purple ice cream.  She delights in the retelling of the plot twists, and, of course, the happy endings.
She is also full of dreams in the daytime.  She is our spirited and creative artist, a weaver of words and images.  She has so many plans for her future, thought through in intricate detail.  Can you remember when your life was full of such dreams?  Was there a time when it all seemed within your reach?  I remember drawing plans for a three-story treehouse complete with portholes and furnishings when I was my son’s age.  I couldn’t understand why it never came to fruition, just as my son can’t understand my reason why he can’t have a treehouse of his own (because we have no trees). 
After spending much time with children and young adults, I believe that we are all born dreamers.  But somewhere along the way, something starts to change that.  Perhaps we hear the word “no” too many times, or reality hits and we lose our vision and confidence.  Dreams start to look impossible or silly, and we become saddled with the weight of responsibility and real world problems.  We shed our dreams and pick up more manageable goals.  We surrender fantasy and imagination for a dose of the practical.  I minister to college students at a liberal arts school, and I witness the tension they carry between wanting to live a life of meaning and purpose and the pressure others place on them to have a practical job that will support them.  Decisions are no longer based on what will help them grow as a person or further their interests, but what will help them to land that high-paying job.  It used to be called “selling out” but now I think it’s called “getting by”. 
Sometimes we are forced to put away our dreams when things don’t turn out as we had planned.  We lose our job or can’t have the family we always imagined.  Someone close to us dies.  Our dream career never pans out.  Children grow up and move away, we retire, and then we are forced to find a new purpose.  Sometimes our dreams are out of our control, and sometimes we’re so caught up in the day to day struggles that we feel like we have no time to dream.
In our Old Testament narrative today, we find Jacob in the midst of his struggles.   He is on the run, fleeing his twin brother’s murderous rage after cheating Esau out his birthright and their dying father’s blessing.  As darkness falls, he stretches out to rest from his troubles, with the earth for his bed and a rock for his pillow.  His dream takes him far from his earthly reality, away to the heavenly realm.  God is standing beside him as he sees a ladder stretching from the ground to heaven with angels ascending and descending.  And God makes a promise to him, a covenant he had also shared with Jacob’s father and grandfather before him: “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac; I will give you this land, and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth.”  God promises to be with Jacob wherever he goes.  Jacob wakes up, truly wakes up for the first time in his life and realizes, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!”
Have you, like Jacob, ever been startled into an awareness of God’s presence when you least expected it?  Sometimes the darkest parts of our journeys can be the place where we are confronted with the reality of our dependence on God, and when we truly seek, we realize that God has never left us.  For me, it has been in these times of transition that God has given me the dreams that have guided my life, when I was finally able to surrender my own tightly held but ill-formed plans.
What is your deepest dream?
Sometimes our dreams seem impossible, especially when we consider the state of the world.  The news is full of the violence between Israel and Palestine, the kidnapped girls in Nigeria, the downed Malaysian plane, and the bipartisan breakdown within our own government.  How can our small lives make a difference?  There is so much suffering and brokenness that the whole world sometimes appears to be in ruin.  We face that on a smaller scale in our own lives when we are confronted with the death of a dream and wonder how to pick up the pieces.  How do we go on when everything seems broken? 
I think we do the same thing Jacob did.  We take the rocky ruins around our feet and build an altar, memorializing this spot as holy ground because in spite of the way things appear, we are full of the hope of God’s presence and guidance.  We might not have faith yet, but God is placing new dreams within us and the hope to take steps toward them.  Like Jacob, we might not know where the journey is taking us, but we are only responsible for taking those first steps and trusting that God will show us the next ones.  It’s a journey, a process of discovery.
We are reminded in the Romans passage and in our experiences that salvation is a process as well.  We long for the time when creation will be set free from its bondage to decay, when it will be restored with humanity to the way God intended it to be.  When every tear will be wiped away, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth.  But until that time, we groan together, we grieve.  We are subjected to frustration as we watch the consequences of sin unfold through violence, destruction, apathy, and disconnection.  We feel the pain of our slavery to fear and sin as it is so hard to break the patterns that we know hurt us and keep us apart from God and one another.  As Paul writes in chapter 7 of Romans, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (v. 19).  I don’t know about you, but I can relate to this on a daily basis.  I know my hang-ups and sins, and I know what I should be doing, but I get caught in the same negative patterns.  But here is where we have the good news, the gospel, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God…and if children, then heirs of God and Christ.”  If we suffer with him, we will also be glorified with him (8:14-17).  We then wait for our adoption as children of God, the redemption of our bodies, when we will be freed from our connection to the flesh (which decays) and can trust instead in the Spirit that gives life.
Adoption is a beautiful image and a gracious gift.  What an awesome thought that we are adopted into God’s family!  We are chosen, loved, and made heirs of the kingdom of God.  But that isn’t the end of the story.  Adoption is an expression of love, but doesn’t come without labor pains of its own.  I have several friends who have gone through the adoption process.  After answering the call to grow their family by sharing their love with a child in need, they went through years of paperwork, interviews, home studies, visits, court proceedings, governmental red tape, and much expense.  And when their dreams were finally realized and the adoption was official, the journey had only just begun.  Like all parents, they learned that their new child didn’t come with an instruction manual, but may have come with baggage including abandonment issues, questionable medical histories, and difficulty attaching.  The adoption process changes the whole family as they are remade together into a new identity.
Isn’t it the same with the church?  We are gathered from our differing backgrounds and perspectives, drawn together by God’s calling and vision, a dream of the love we can share as we serve and worship together.  But there are growing pains and disagreements and worries.  We don’t always feel that we belong, or we become concerned that our numbers are getting smaller.  It is not easy and we are not always certain what exactly we are called to do.  How do we continue to live out God’s dream for the church in a changing culture?  How can we still be the church when we are so small and feel so powerless?  But the gospel and our hope remain the same. 
The word hope is used seven times in the Romans passage (five times in one verse).  I find it interesting that hope can be used both as a noun and a verb…it’s something we have, and something we do.  Hope is what inspires us to keep walking towards our dreams even when they seem unlikely.  Hope motivated Jacob to build an altar and vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you” (Genesis 28:20-22).  Notice that he didn’t yet have faith that this would come to pass, and the word “faith” doesn’t show up in the Romans passage on salvation either.  We instead hear about waiting and longing and hope.  Faith is a process; it is the gift of God as we are being saved.  We put our hope in God, and along the way, God gives us faith as we are being adopted into the family of God.  Salvation becomes more than the one moment we chose to believe, but is the decisions we make every day to live our lives in accordance with God’s plan and to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.
We tend to view hope as a small thing.  I hope it won’t rain tomorrow.  But hope has so much possibility.  Hope is what keeps us moving forward.  Hope gives us the vision to reach our dreams.  We put our hope in God and trust that it will be rewarded with faith.  It is our hope in the power of the gospel and the truth of God’s love that keeps us gathering together.  Our hope is what allows us to keep working for peace and healing in our world, understanding that it is our calling as God’s people.  As Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann has said,
“Hope, on one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk. On the other hand, hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.”
― Walter BrueggemannThe Prophetic Imagination

In other words, hope is a risk, but it is our greatest power to effect change in our world.  Hope convinces us that there is another way, a better way; that we don’t have to believe that this is all there is.  Hope is the gospel that opens our eyes each day to the beauty and mystery that is beyond all our understanding…that God so loved us that he sent his son to show us the way to live fully and eternally, now and forevermore.  May our dreams, in sleeping and waking, remind us of this hope to which we have been called, and may we be so inspired to share this hope with others.  And one day, may we wake up and say, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.”  Thanks be to God.

Friday, July 18, 2014

My Mom is god


This is perhaps the most meaningful and humbling note I have ever received.  I found it in my daughter's school journal, sent home by her teacher at the end of the school year.  According to Maryn, the students were given a writing assignment to complete each morning of kindergarten.  Sometimes they would be told what to write, and other times they were free to choose the topic.  I'm pretty sure this is an example of the latter.  Although her teacher had corrected my emerging young writer's "god" to "good", I wonder about the original intent.  Aren't parents the first images of God a child has?  Isn't our goal to model God's love and affirm that our child is a beloved and good creation of God?

Ah, this is what cuts me the deepest in parenthood...the sense of failure at this primary responsiblity to train up a child in God's way, in God's love.  So many times I become like an Old Testament god full of wrath and punitive retribution.  It becomes all about the law instead of the Spirit, until the rules and my standards become gods in themselves.  I forget the grace I have been shown.  I forget to share that gift with those closest to me, whose eyes are always watching, always learning.  But, oh, the grace they show.  When I least expect it, they are reminding me that I am good, instead of the other way around.

She is just beginning to see herself as separate from me, although sometimes the line is blurred as we are so alike in temperament.  I want to be a reflection for her of the beauty and creativity and love of God.  I want her to see her worth not only in my eyes, but in God's.  I long for her to dream vividly of what her world can be, full of faith and meaning.  I hope that she will connect her life to the ongoing work of redeeming creation, to help bring about the Kingdom of God here and now.  I want my work and ministry to be a model of that, but sometimes all the little "g" gods of success and busyness get in the way.  I become impatient and too quick to judge.  But I thank God for grace, particularly shown through a little blond-haired blue-eyed angel on earth that sees no distinction between good and god and me.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Deliver us from the ruins

As I was going through my morning prayer in Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, the response caught my attention.  "Rise up, O God! Maintain your cause: Deliver us from the endless ruins."  I don't use the word "ruins" often, so I paused and considered it for a moment.  I thought of images of destruction and desolation, of a burned out house I had recently passed in a neighborhood near where I live.  But the word "endless" seems to suggest more, something lasting or recurring.  I think of patterns, cycles, traps; the ways we get stuck, and the reasons we do things ("because this is the way we've always done it").  I think of systems and triangles and entanglements; grudges and grief and resentment.  It's like maintaining the status quo while the walls fall down around you.

The more I live and learn, the more I realize that the ruins are inevitable.  We are mortal and fallible.  Death and failure attack each of us.  My heart is heavy with the news of two deaths in the communities I have served, and many more I know struggle with the death of dreams as jobs end and friends seek out new roles and callings.  Death, both physical and metaphorical, brings into question the faith we hold dear.  It hits us with the reality that we are not in control.  Although we pretend to have it all together, it just takes one blow to shake our foundation, leaving us sifting among the ruins.

During my recent sojourn at Virginia Theological Seminary, I heard the story of their ruins.  After a fire in 2010 destroyed their chapel, the worshipping community had to discern what to do.  As the fire was accidental, the insurance company provided funds towards rebuilding, but because the old building was historic, the city demanded that the old chapel would have to be rebuilt as it had been.  The cost was prohibitive for replacing the old structure, and the old footprint and layout weren't conducive for the functions of the space.  Finally, a compromise was reached.  The remaining chapel ruins were left as a memorial garden space.  The walls were taken down to knee height around the perimeter and the bell tower was left in place.  Grass grows where the pews once stood, and there is no roof to block the view of the sky.  There is an altar table in the space, reminding you of the sacred nature of the ground on which you stand.


In the space, you are surrounded by the noise of rebuilding as the new chapel goes up adjacent to the old chapel grounds.  For me, it is a fitting metaphor.  We will occasionally find ourselves in the ruins and we have to decide where to go from there.  Will we be buried within them?  Will we allow something new to be built from the ashes?  Will we mark the sacred space as a memorial, much as our biblical ancestors took the rocks of the ground where they stood and built altars in the places where they encountered God?




I've loved the phoenix of Greek mythology, which rises out of the ashes, reborn.  I just learned that the bird was also a symbol used by early Christians.  And it makes sense--our Gospel is based on the truth of the resurrection, the idea that new life can come from death.  What if we were able to face death and change with hope instead of fear?  Could we see the potential of new life; mysterious, uncertain, yet eternal?

I believe in resurrection.  I've seen it too many times not to.

May we all be renewed by the reality of resurrection as we face our own ruins and start to build again.